The Worshipful Company of Stationers

The Stationers Company covered most of the publishing industry in the Elizabethan era, including printers, bookbinders, and booksellers. Not the writers, of course. We’ve always been too motley astationers crew to be organized. (The modern American self-styled ‘Authors Guild’ represents only a tiny fraction of American writers; mainly a group of vocal, yet abject, slaves of the corporate publishing industry, a bloated Leviathan that would have dismayed the most commercial of the worshipful stationers of yore.)


If you want a quick glimpse at the origin of something, go look up its name in the OED. The first definition, whose first citation comes from 1311, is “A person who sells books; a bookseller; (in the Middle Ages) esp. one licensed by a university. Occasionally also: a printer, a bookbinder.”

Well, that’s a little on the nose. Having started with my notes from Cyprian Blagden’s The Stationers Company, I was expecting the page to start with definition 2, “A person who has a market stall.” (A vendor who is stationary. A stationer. Get it?) That definition is rated Obsolete and its first citation is from 1616, which tells me Mr. Blagden was quoting an early modern source without bothering to check it out. Sigh.


A German parchmenter, 1568

The first book stalls sprang up around the universities in Oxford and Cambridge, way back in the fourteenth century. Books were made entirely by hand back then: skinning the sheep, scraping the parchment, mixing the ink, writing the book, and sewing the pages into the binding. Skilled craftsmen (and probably lots of unrecorded craftswomen) performed each step, except the writing, which could be done by any Shmoe with a quill. Although many a shmoe left the actual scribbling to a scrivener. Books were valuable objects in those handmade days, usually written on commission.

Scriveners and limners (picture people) had a craft guild in London by 1357. Guilds controlled quality by controlling the training of craftsmen. They could also thus control the supply of crafts in high demand, keeping their wages up. The stationer was primarily a shop-keeper, though he might be trained in a related craft. He arranged for the manufacture of a book to a customer’s order and he may have carried a stock of secondhand books.  

(Can’t) stop the press!

Then William Caxton printed the first book in England in 1477 and the publishing world changed forever. Now we had printers cranking out more books than a bookseller could sell over his own counter. Thus wholesaling was born and investment capital entered the trade.

The Stationer Company’s main functions were the registration of its members’ rights to publish caxton_press_wikicomparticular titles (thus securing their perpetual ownership), the admission of apprentices, and the regulation of the trade. To enforce this the Company was given powers of search throughout the country and, crucially, the printing of books was restricted to London and the two universities.

The Stationers’ Company was always one of the poorer City corporations – in 1557 it ranked fifty-sixth out of sixty-three. Book manufacture was a risky business. Few books were really necessary, apart from ABCs, law books, and Bibles. The appeal of the rest was anybody’s guess.

Bookseller was a broader term then, encompassing any publisher or retailer of books. The term ‘stationer’ was now applied generally to anyone who made, bound, or sold books. Printers printed pages, though they might also bind and sell books in their shops, thus functioning as publishers. Gradually, publishers became people with money to invest, who discovered or commissioned the work, then oversaw its production and distribution. Printers sank to the bottom of the hierarchy, becoming merely skilled workers. Well, not quite the bottom. That’s where the writers scrambled for crumbs.

The best sites for bookshops were near the doors of St Paul’s. 136 stationers and book craftsmen were located within 500 yards of the cathedral between 1300 and 1500. Dozens of booksellers traded from lock-up sheds and stalls leaning against the cathedral walls. Ballad-sellers would drape sheets over their arms and cry them through the city.

The right to copy

The Company’s other main role was ensuring that the ownership of copies was properly recorded, stationers_register_smduly enforced, and if necessary arbitrated. Entry in the Stationers’ Register was legal proof of ownership. Titles which proved to be valuable properties sooner or later found their way into the Register. In the earlier part of this period, first-time entries were usually made by a single tradesman in his own name; on his death his accumulated copies were assigned to his wife or sold to one or more successors. For less popular works there wasn’t much incentive to register, so the practice was inconsistent.

By 1557 the London trade in printed books was well established. Most of the important vernacular genres – law books, primers, psalms, sermons, school books, ballads and almanacs – were clearly identified. Little books were also popular, like scandalous ballads and pious chapbooks. These reached a nationwide readership through pedlars, fairs and markets.

Because we live in an awesome world full of wonderful people, you can look at pages from the real live Stationers Register online, digitized by the University of Toronto. It starts with many pages of accounts and lists of new apprentices. On page 74 we start seeing the books registered in 1554. My eyes landed on this one: “To John kynge these bokes folowynge Called a nose gaye / the schole house of women / and also a sacke full of newes.”

Technically, a new book had to be licensed by the Warden of the Stationers Company, independent of civil or religious authorization. But at least a third of the books known to have been printed were not entered in the register — typical of laws and their enforcement in this period. People seemed to obey laws when it was convenient, or at least more convenient than not.

Note that the copyrights belonged entirely to publishers, whether they were also printers or not. Writers had nothing to do with it. The idea that writers would have rights in their works was not unknown (Thomas Nashe complained about it), but wasn’t considered worthy of legal attention until well into the eighteenth and thus far beyond my tale. Read more at Wikipedia, if you want.

This wasn’t because everyone regarded writers with contempt; on the contrary. Writing for money was considered crass for centuries.

‘Ware the pirates!

Publishing on spec was risky. Paper was expensive throughout the period, often being imported from the Low Countries. Book-making was labor-intensive. “Those fashioning the text after it left the writer’s desk… included paper makers, printers, founders, and composers of type, copyists, and press correctors, booksellers, chapmen, general distributors, library promoters, and above all,pirate financing publishers.” (Raven, p.4.)

Then as now, big sellers supported less popular works. The printer Richard Tottell exploited his patent to print law books successfully enough to invest in poetry, like Songes and sonettes, a collection of poems by Lord Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Law books also raised Tottell’s family into the landowning class.

The most dependable genres were generally governed by patents or copyrights. Bitter battles were fought within the Company over the right to publish these profitable works. The inequalities that resulted provoked piracy, printing unauthorized copies and selling them cheap.

Remember that the majority of printers were clustered near St. Paul’s. There were others scattered about, but not too far: John Field, who printed Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, had his shop in Blackfriars. That’s a three-minute walk from the cathedral grounds, if you catch all the lights. This was a small world, both physically and socially, yet men could print whole books licensed to someone else, package them up, and send them forth to be sold, without anyone being the wiser.

(I am constantly bemused by the constancy of the publishing industry. All these things, including selling books at a discount to resellers and offering returns for unsold copies, began in the Tudor century.)

Crown privileges (a royal patent to publish some title or class of book) were usually acquired for life, with the right of reversion to your successors. Extension of monopolies divided the book trade still further between rich and poor. The Company had an obligation to support its members and the Crown had an interest in a healthy publishing industry, so in the 1580s solutions were devised. Poor printers were granted the right to publish books that whose copyrights had expired. Wealthy printers offered bits of work to poorer ones, like sheets of an Almanac.


According to Company rules, no books could be printed without license — the Warden’s approval. Violations were purnished by confiscating and destroying the printer’s press and type. He would also get six months imprisonment without bail. Booksellers and bookbinders got three months. The wardens had the right to search the premises of any member of the book trade, seize offensive books, and carry away offensive printing materials.

An example of a highly offensive work would be one discussing Queen Elizabeth’s possible successors. That topic was felonious, being considered a form of treason. You could get a year in prison for it. Other objectionable works attacked members of the government, which included the episcopy, which is why Martin’s Marprelate‘s works were considered treasonous.

dracoThese laws sound draconian, but they were rarely applied. The usual punishment was a fine, which went into the Company’s coffers to pay for feasts and gardeners and widows’ aid, among other things. Fines could be regarded as a cost of doing business.

From the Cambridge History of the Book: “Censorship, far from being pervasive or by the 1630s virtually totalitarian in its repressiveness, was essentially ad hoc, inconsistent, opportunistic and usually ineffective. Members of the book trade, pursuing profit, colluded with one another in the evasion of authority. Company officials impounded books in order to sell them on themselves, while other tradesmen published printed pamphlets anonymously, using shared printing and swift distribution networks to cover their tracks.  At the same time authors used indirection, allusions, parallels and fables in legitimately published works.” [I would like you all to notice the glaring lack of Oxford commas in this quotation.]

Shillings and pence

It cost sixpence to register a book and the penalties were light for not doing so. The fine depended on the content, but it could be as little as twenty pence or as much as two shillings. You could be fined four pence for keeping your shop open on a Sunday. 


Shillings from the time of Edward VI

A catch-penny pamphlet sold for two, three, or four pence and paid the writer forty shillings. Same for balladeers. A good writer, like Thomas Nashe, could get two pounds for a good pamphlet. A lesser pamphleteer would get less cash and might be paid only in copies, which he would have to flog himself.

The cheapest printed work was that penny pamphlet, which actually cost tuppence. You could stand with the groundlings at the theater for a penny, so written works had competition from oral/visual media from the beginning. Robert Greene’s wildly popular coney-catching pamphlets (explorations of the London underworld) cost three pennies apiece. You’d pool your pennies with the other apprentices in your shop and read the pamphlets aloud. 

As a last word, these books listed below are great reads, especially the old ones — Blagden and Judge. They’re filled with anecdotes about the people who inhabited the early modern book trade: their rivalries, their successes, their failures. Resources far too rich for one measly blog!


Bell, Maureen, John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, eds. 2008. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 4: 1557–1695. [accessed through Cambridge Histories Online via UT Austin.]

Blagden, Cyprian. 1960. The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. 1997. Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Judge, Cyril Bathurst. 1934. Elizabethan Book Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Raven, James. 2007. The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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